Fish Bones Tell Tale of Ancient Migrants to Sea of Galilee

New arrivals came from the Caucasus region 4,900 years ago and changed the character of a village, study shows

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Ruins of Bet Yerah
Ruins of Bet YerahCredit: Gil Eliahu
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

In a prehistoric hamlet by the Sea of Galilee, the local people caught and ate of the lakefish: carp, tilapia including the famed Saint Peter’s Fish, and an occasional catfish, as they had done since time immemorial. And then about 4,900 years ago, small groups of people who had been slowly moving southward from the Caucasus made their way to the town, leaving behind archaeological signals in the form of unique pottery, a different arrangement of their homes – and a strikingly different pattern of consumption, archaeologists say. They did not particularly like fish, it seems.

A piscivorian diet could have been assumed for people dwelling in the site called Tel Bet Yerah, one of two ancient settlements at either end of the Jordan River named for the moon god, the other being Jericho. Indeed earlier excavations had found scores of stone net-sinkers, typical of prehistoric fishing sites.

But archaeologists in general had not actually done many fish-centric studies or looked into whether the patterns of fish exploitation can shed light on life in the late prehistoric Near East, explained the team of researchers. And they set out to rectify this lacuna.

But archaeologists in general had not actually done many fish-centric studies or looked into whether the patterns of fish exploitation can shed light on life in the late prehistoric Near East, explained the team of researchers, Omri Lernau and Jamie Shapiro of Haifa University, and Sarit Paz and Raphael Greenberg of Tel Aviv University. And they set out to rectify this lacuna.

What the researchers found in their systemic analysis of fish bones (representing “consumption”) and fishing gear (representing “acquisition”) at the Bronze Age site of Tel Bet Yerah, is marked variability in the exploitation of the local fish resources.

If given their druthers, the locals would rather eat a mammal, but fish were certainly on their menu, a predilection the newcomers might not have shared, suggest Omri Lernau and Jamie Shapiro of Haifa University, and Sarit Paz and Raphael Greenberg of Tel Aviv University. Their finds were published in the journal Antiquity.

Bet YerahCredit: Hanay

Or maybe the newcomers liked fish perfectly well, but weren’t familiar with local customs, preferring to angle for fish with their own unique copper hooks, Greenberg suggests to Haaretz.

To recap the history of Tel Bet Yerah insofar as possible, it began over 5,500 years ago as a sprawling late-prehistoric village built on a natural hill on the southwestern shore of the freshwater Sea of Galilee, where the people caught lakefish using stone-weighted nets. That village was replaced by a walled town 5,200 to 5,000 years ago. But soon, as the town became more crowded and formally organized, fishing and fish consumption precipitously declined, possibly because the fishermen were drummed out of town to do their business beyond the walls lest they stink out the neighborhood.

And then, starting about 4,900 to 4,700 years ago, two things began to happen in this place. Houses and building projects in the town began to be abandoned, at least in part, and migrants arrived, moving into abandoned spaces and squatting in public areas.

Enter the Kura-Araxes

Be the newcomers’ piscivorian preference as it may, the fish finds add onto other, more obvious types of archaeological evidence that shed light on the transitions Bet Yerah experienced, and on the interaction between the local inhabitants and the migrants, who constituted the southernmost appearance of the Kura-Araxes culture, spreading out of the Transcaucasus region and eventually extending from Armenia to Iran.

The Kura-Araxes-type ceramics were first discovered by archaeologists at Tel Bet Yerah, or Khirbet el-Kerak, in the 1920s, and were so different from local production that they were given the name of the site in which they were first found: “Khirbet Kerak Ware”.

Khirbet Kerak pottery , typical of the Kura-AraxiansCredit: Hanay

Soon, more finds of this type began to be discovered in eastern Turkey and Syria, suggesting a slow, gradual movement of people from the south Caucasus to the Levant. Tel Bet Yerah was apparently roughly its southernmost edge of this culture.

“Starting around 4,900 years ago we see a new material culture in Tel Bet Yerah that differed from the local material culture, but it was remarkably similar in its ceramics to contemporary sites in Armenia, Iran and Anatolia,” Sarit Paz spells out to Haaretz.

Foreign pots do not always point to migration, but the Tel Aviv University excavations at Bet Yerah have been able to show that many changes accompanied their arrival, from the way homes were furnished to the way meals were cooked and fish were caught. The new people had arrived with a new cultural package, Paz explains. “Everything changed,” she sums up.

One sign of the arrival and gradual integration of the Kura-Araxians was that Khirbet Kerak pottery was unevenly distributed among the Bet Yerah households in the early part of the Early Bronze Age, but over time it became more evenly distributed, joining local pottery types, previous work has shown. Also: One new home was built atop abandoned structures and is markedly different in layout.

Sometimes a story can be told from what isn’t there. The archaeologists have not found marks of conflict. This may indicate that the incomers from the Caucasus didn’t come as marauders waving swords but integrated peacefully into an already-existing town. They may have been perceived as a marginal group, squatting in the remains of abandoned homes or among the unfinished foundations of a large public building in the administrative center of the town. And although they ate some, they may have had issues with the fish.

Prehistoric kibbutz ideology

For the new study, the archaeologists examined 594 fish bones found at a specific area of Tel Bet Yerah. Most were from Early Bronze Age deposits and nearly a third were associated with Khirbet Kerak Ware-bearing layers.

After nearly 5,000 years, the bones were in parlous shape, the team admits. But they did manage to identify the fish species in 219 cases, which is 55 percent of the bones. Most were from freshwater fish in the Sea of Galilee – carp, catfish and tilapia. In addition, seven of the 219 were from sea-fish: porgy, grouper, seabream and mullet, which had to have been imported from the Mediterranean coast.

Fishing net weights used by the locals, and the two hooks used by Kurak immigrantsCredit: Omri Lernau
Fishbones found at Tell Bet YerahCredit: Omri Lernau

Inland towns importing sea-fish was a thing in the Bronze Age. Such remains have also been found at Megiddo (aka the site of the future existential crisis Armageddon) and Tel Kabri (site of a Canaanite palace decorated with Minoan-style frescoes, a wine cellar and a plastered floor).

Later, during the Late Bronze Age and then in the Iron Age, fish were also being imported to inland Israel from as far afield as the Sinai and the Nile River, archaeologists have found. But the sea fish in Tel Bet Yerah are the earliest known indication of such trade in the Jordan Valley.

Anyway, in the Early Bronze Age I, the villagers ate a lot of fish at Tel Bet Yerah, chiefly appreciating the charms of the carp. And then, irrespective of the migrants – fish consumption seems to have plummeted together with the advance of urbanization and construction of a surrounding wall.

The evidence of the bones is supported by discoveries of fishing gear, i.e., stone weights, the appearance of which also seems to have declined in the early Bronze Age II.

Another possibility is that the local folk would have happily continued to eat fish, why not, but as the orderly town arose with its grid plan of homes and streets, and notions of hygiene, the city rulers ordered the fisherfolk out of town, Greenberg tells Haaretz. A fish industry does not smell good, which is one reason why the ancient Romans (much later) would build garum factories well outside the cities, including in Ashkelon or rather, outside Ashkelon.

Also, regarding the migrants, they did eat some local fish; but it seems based on the discovery of two fish-hooks in their area, one still with a bit of twine on it! that they were anglers; while the locals caught fish using weighted nets. Asked about the significance of finding just two hooks, Greenberg points out that’s 100% more than the rest of the town had.

The Sea of Galilee, swollen after heavy winter rainsCredit: רות שוסטר

One wonders: did the people of the Kura-Araxes culture in the Caucasus eat fish? We don’t know for sure because archaeologists there didn’t do systematic screening for that, the team points out – but there is almost no evidence that they did. Archaeological evidence of fish exploitation there is beyond rare: one key Kura-Araxes site, Kvastkhelebi in Georgia, produced exactly one fish-hook and two fish-bones. Nor do fish appear in the Kura-Araxes zoomorphic iconography, the team adds.

And why might the town have been abandoned, at least in part, in the Early Bronze Age II? Greenberg speculates that it could have been a backlash to the imposition of order in the town. In the village there had been no grids, no planning, freedom! “There could have been internal disputes. Maybe a sort of forced Bronze Age egalitarianism or socialism, like a kibbutz ideology, where they ate from the same pots, that didn’t work, and it fell apart pretty fast,” he suggests. And then, possibly following a series of crises, the town achieved blessed hierarchy.

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